Ma­jor in­ves­ti­ga­tions are never stand-alone sto­ries

It takes sev­eral re­ports on a topic to give us the larger pic­ture

The Hindu - - OPED - A.S. Pan­neer­sel­van read­er­sed­i­[email protected]­

What are the cru­cial jour­nal­is­tic take­aways from the two in-depth re­ports by N. Ram on L’Af­faire Rafale, “Modi’s de­ci­sion to buy 36 Rafales shot the price of each jet up by 41%” ( Jan­uary 18, 2019) and “De­fence Min­istry protested against PMO un­der­min­ing Rafale ne­go­ti­a­tions” (Fe­bru­ary 8, 2019)? When this news­pa­per broke the Bo­fors story, there were ques­tions posed to the Congress govern­ment and Prime Min­is­ter Ra­jiv Gandhi. But in the case of the Rafale sto­ries, some read­ers, in­stead of ques­tion­ing the govern­ment and the Prime Min­is­ter, are ques­tion­ing jour­nal­ists and jour­nal­ism.

Rafale take­aways

First, let’s un­der­stand the con­text in which these sto­ries were pub­lished. The rul­ing govern­ment had sub­mit­ted a note to the Supreme Court that said the ne­go­ti­a­tions were con­ducted only by the seven-mem­ber team led by the Deputy Chief of Air Staff. There was no men­tion of the in­volve­ment of the Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice. This was re­peated by the De­fence Min­is­ter in the Lok Sabha on Jan­uary 4, 2019. The ma­jor ob­jec­tion to Mr. Ram’s first story was that the re­port did not say any­thing new and was there­fore not an ex­clu­sive one. The cru­cial find­ing of that re­port was that it firmly es­tab­lished that the cost of each air­craft went up by 41% be­cause of dis­tribut­ing ‘non-re­cur­ring’ costs at­trib­uted to the ‘de­sign and de­vel­op­ment’ of 13 In­dia-Spe­cific En­hance­ments over 36 in­stead of 126 air­craft. The re­port also es­tab­lished that the govern­ment did not lever­age the counter of­fer from the Eurofighter Typhoon con­sor­tium.

One of the con­trib­u­tors to this news­pa­per, K.R.A. Narasiah, took strong ex­cep­tion to the Fe­bru­ary 8th re­port, which showed how par­al­lel ne­go­ti­a­tions by the Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice weak­ened the In­dian ne­go­ti­at­ing team’s po­si­tion. He wrote: “It is a pity that N. Ram, a sea­soned and re­spected jour­nal­ist, shot from the hip in his anx­i­ety to dis­credit the Modi govern­ment in the Rafale deal. In fact, con­ve­niently omit­ting the por­tion of the note by the De­fence Min­is­ter, the en­tire re­port gives a twisted mean­ing and has brought down the rep­u­ta­tion of The Hindu by sev­eral notches.”

It is im­por­tant to recog­nise that the note from the De­fence Min­is­ter does not con­tra­dict the ar­gu­ments of The Hindu’s story but, in an oblique man­ner, val­i­dates it.

Let’s also look at the dates to un­der­stand the se­quence of events. On Novem­ber 24, 2015, Deputy Sec­re­tary S.K. Sharma put out a note reg­is­ter­ing protest against the par­al­lel ne­go­ti­a­tion by the Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice. On De­cem­ber 1, the then De­fence Sec­re­tary, G. Mo­han Ku­mar, made this of­fi­cial no­ta­tion in his own hand: “RM may pl. see. It is de­sir­able that such dis­cus­sions be avoided by the PMO as it un­der­mines our ne­go­ti­at­ing po­si­tion se­ri­ously.” To this, then De­fence Min­is­ter Manohar Par­rikar re­sponded on Jan­uary 19, 2016: “It ap­pears PMO and French Pres­i­dent of­fice are mon­i­tor­ing the progress of the is­sue which was an out­come of the sum­mit meet­ing. Para 5 ap­pears to be an over re­ac­tion. De­fence sec­re­tary (G. Mo­han Ku­mar) may re­solve the mat­ter in con­sul­ta­tion with prin­ci­pal sec­re­tary to PM.”

Dribs and drabs

In a dif­fer­ent re­port, “Four rea­sons why the at­tacks on The Hindu’s Rafale story are shal­low and self-im­pli­cat­ing” (­nal­y­sis), Vargh­ese K. Ge­orge ex­plains the salient fea­tures of se­ri­ous and on­go­ing in­ves­tiga­tive re­portage. He ex­plains how no sin­gle re­port on a topic is the last word on it and that in­ves­tiga­tive sto­ries come in dribs and drabs. Mr. Par­rikar was care­ful in his note and used the word “ap­pears” only with ref­er­ence to Para 5. Fur­ther, he did not re­ject the fears of his bureau­cratic col­leagues when it came to Para 4, which read: “The dis­cus­sions be­tween Diplo­matic Ad­viser to the French De­fence Min­is­ter and Joint Sec­re­tary to PM tan­ta­mount to par­al­lel ne­go­ti­a­tion.”

The sto­ries gain im­por­tance be­cause they draw our at­ten­tion to the fact that both the Supreme Court and Par­lia­ment have been de­lib­er­ately mis­led. N. Ram’s re­lent­less jour­nal­ism shows how our sys­tems are not trans­par­ent and lack ac­count­abil­ity. It has helped to call out the de­lib­er­ate lies and the weak­en­ing of our le­gal in­sti­tu­tions gov­erned by the growth of the ju­rispru­dence of the “sealed cover”.

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